While suburban office parks and city skyscrapers often gleam, one commentator suggests that important innovations tend to come from less attractive “low road building[s]”:
The startup lore says that many companies were founded in garages, attics, and warehouses. Once word got around, companies started copying the formula. They stuck stylized cube farms into faux warehouses and figured that would work. The coolness of these operations would help them look cool and retain employees. Keep scaling that idea up and you get Apple’s ultrahip mega headquarters, which is part spaceship and part Apple Store.
But as Stewart Brand argued in his pathbreaking essay, “‘Nobody Cares What You Do in There’: The Low Road,” it’s not hip buildings that foster creativity but crappy ones.
“Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover,” Brand wrote. “Most of the world’s work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things.”
Brand’s essay originally appeared in his book, How Buildings Learn, and has just been re-released as part of The Innovator’s Cookbook, a new Steven Johnson-edited tome of great essays about inventing stuff. It couldn’t come at a better time. The aesthetic of innovation now dominates the startup scene, but it’s like the skeleton of a long-dead invention beast. The point of a Low Road building isn’t that it looks any particular way but rather that you could do anything with and in them. “It has to do with freedom,” as Brand put it.
The argument here is that the particular design of a building, ordered, new, and stately versus bland, functional, and drab, leads to different creative outcomes. If this is the case, why then do successful companies move from their “low road building” to corporate complexes? This likely has to do with status signals – a successful company has to look to look the part such as having an impressive lobby to intimidate visitors and upscale offices for executives. But do the new buildings necessarily slow down innovation or is it more of a function of a growing bureaucratic structure?
I wonder if there is empirical evidence about where great companies get their start and how soon it is before they move to more traditional corporate offices.
Another take on this essay is to think about where these kinds of “low road buildings” tend to be located. In the suburbs, I would think they tend to be in rundown strip malls or in faceless industrial parks. In the city, they might be in old manufacturing facilities or more rundown neighborhoods. On the whole, people would probably not want to leave near such places. Such places could often be considered “blight” and not the best use of the land. If something more attractive was to be proposed for such sites, many cities would jump at the opportunity. Does this mean we need to protect such spaces, particularly since they are often cheaper and could be used by start-ups who have limited capital?